Turkey as a country is not easy to decipher. We can say it is extraordinary and unique. To begin to understand her politically and culturally, we must first place her in the correct frame.
Let us start out with the most general question: Where is Turkey? In the East or in the West?
English poet Rudyard Kipling wrote in 1889 “Oh, East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.”
East is East and West is West. But, is Turkey East or West?
The answer to this question will vary from one person to another; it will soon become clear that there is no definite and unambiguous answer. We can easily say that no other country on earth challenges Kiplings’s proposition as strongly as Turkey. Here the East is not entirely East, the West is not completely West. Could Turkey be the place where the twain finally met?
In any case, Turkey’s address is confusing: Turkey is both a Balkan and Caucasian country; she is between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea; she is in the Middle East and the Near East, in Europe and Asia… And hence, in Eurasia.
Location signs bear the mark of both geography and history. Geography is destiny, history is recorded memory. You can’t strip them off from your face like a mask. History is like our childhood; it comes with us as long as we live. Geography is the neighborhood in which we grew up. We think we have left it behind a long time ago, but it keeps reminding itself in our dreams and nightmares. Sometimes we wake up thinking we are still there.
As far as Turkey is concerned, this unease has been a curse and blessing for those who found themselves living here.
SINCE THE TROJAN WAR
For the West, the Anatolian shore has been the border of the East since Antiquity, a long time before the Turks came. In ancient Greek, “Anatolia” meant the place where the sun rises, or east. It was also the place where “the barbarians” lived.
The tribes that came from the Aegean Sea and attacked Troy, the “high walled city”, did not understand the language of the defenders. They imitated the strange syllables they heard and called them “bar-bar-ians.” This we learn from Homer.
This ancient outlook has, in essence, transcended millennia and reached current times. Regardless of changes in religion, governments, technologies and peoples, it has remained the same. The resilience of the characterizations used by the Acheans and the subsequent invaders about those living across the border is remarkable. From the Mykenians to the Crusades, to the imperialistic expansion of colonial powers in modern times; from the siege of Troy in 11th Century B.C. to the 20th Century Dardanelles campaigns, the main theme of rejection have remained the same: “You are not one of us!”
In fact, the opposition to the Eastern “barbarian” has been one of the main constituents of the Western identity. It has remained the same regardless of the actors. The “barbarians” confronting the Achaens from the other shore were the Trojans, Alexander the Great found Persians in their place, Christians found Moslems, the Enlightenment democracies religious Asian despotism, contemporary Greeks the Turks..
For them it was the border of “civilization.”
THE BUFFER ZONE
This long-standing East-West dichotomy which lies at the foundation of Orientalism appears to simplify the map of “the civilized world.” Yet, in fact, it distorts facts, blurres the picture, leading to perceptual errors. The real map is more complicated. The border is not that clear, there are buffer zones and bridges. There are places where East and West are intermixed and inseparable.
In such places you can’t help but ask: “Where are we, East or West?”
For the West, the Ottoman Empire represented “the East” and what lay “over the border”. Yet, from the 15th century to its collapse in the 20th Century, much of Ottoman land and riches were geographically in Europe, i.e., the West. Some people, like Samuel Huntington of The Clash of Civilizations, found the Westernization efforts of Turkey for a civilizational shift artificial and unsustainable and invited her back to its natural place as the leader of the Islamic world.
Ironically, the Islamists who welcomed the invitation were unable ot find a Muslim “ümmah” waiting for them with open arms. Practically speaking, they were left out. It is ironic to discover that the decisions and official records of the Islamic Conference contained the same kind of externalizing tone in wording and innuendo as the European Union records: “You are not really one of us!”
In 2020 I used the following aphorism to describe Turkey’s “neither-here-nor-there” position:
“We went to the West, they wouldn’t let us in, we turned back to the East, it did not work out!”
THE REAL ADDRESS OF TURKEY
Neither in the East, nor in the West –in -between- the- two. This is the real address of this country. It points out exactly where she is located. I am talking about a long-term, structural feature that has not changed for 2500 years.
I guess we can say, she is a river bed. The water runs between the two banks -Eastern and Western-. Occasionally, after long winters, melting snow on the mountains causes floods. Sometimes the flood is so bad that river bed disappears completely and the area looks like a lake. After a while the water recedes and the river bed reappears. This may take a century or a few years. It has happened repeatedly over time.
We can call it the tide of history. Each flood leaves behind its sand which mixes with the sand from previous floods. Nonetheless, the river returns to its bed. Layer of sand upon layer of sand. Just as with the nine layers of city of Troy..
It has changed but remained the same.
Great historian Halil İnalcık said “Throughout its history Anatolia became the bridge for he transmission and fusion of Oriental and Western cultures from the Bronze Age to the present time.”
Two words used by Professor İnalcık should be underlined: “fusion” and “transmission”. They denote an active and often voluntary exchange between cultures leading to new syntheses. It has obviously been a two-way process: “transmission” and mixing, not imposition.
As essayist Sabahattin Eyüboğlu, a lover of Anatolia, put it: In these lands, “the conqueror has been conquered.”
This has been the case from the ancient Greeks to the Persians, from Alexander the Great to Rome, from the Seljuk Turks and Ottoman’s to the present time.
I think, in cinematographic terms, this transition resembles the gradual change from one scene to the other that movie-makers call a “dissolve.” When two pictures, the passing one and the coming one, are superimposed, a new picture appears for a second which is different from both. That is how Turkey looks any given moment:
It is a pentimento as well as a rough draft.
MASTER OF BALANCING ACTS
The picture that appears in front of your eyes can be a freak of nature or a wonderful synthesis. It could be the magnificent Süleymaniye Mosque of Sinan the Architect or one of the shoddy mosques built 500 years after it.
The greatest danger is half-bakedness rather than a synthesis. Half-baked institutions, half-baked solutions, half-baked lives…
Here the daily life can be confusing. People may have difficulty in communicating with each other, because there are so many co-existent codes, but can understand each other with the slightest gesture. The bipolarity of living on the border creates tension, but makes people more clever in a lot of areas. The potential for creating fantastic syntheses is there, as well as the probability of mistaking schizophrenic mumblings for originality. Eastern and Western value systems operate side by side like credit cards in a wallet to be used when appropriate. There is also some cash from the old days for emergencies. Cheap and rough imitations of goods from across the border are abundant, because copying is easy. But there are always others who strive to do better on their own. Life can be inconsistent, frustrating – and exciting at times.
The title of my first book published in 1985 was “It is Not Easy Being a Turk.” Nearly 40 years later it remains so.
Because neither here nor there… is where Turkey is.